Last night I went to a debate organised called ‘What Should Be Taught in Our Schools’? The speakers were in two camps: Katherine Birbalsingh, Toby Young and Dr Ralph Townsend were in the Discipline-Academia camp. Dawn Hallybone, Tristram Shepard and Donald Clark were in the dissenting camp.
The context of this debate is the Review of the National Curriculum. This review is self-limiting by focusing on WHAT chunks of knowledge should be taught, not how young people can learn and grow. This limits the terms of public debate and consultation, including the frame of last night’s debate, although the event was punctured by some radical voices. For example, Tristram Shepard replied to the question ‘What should be taught?’ with the simple answer, ‘Children’. Donald Clark‘s post describes in more detail what was said and you can hear the event in full here.
I knew that around 175 people had booked and that this was organised by Graham Brown-Martin, known for disruptive tech in education, so I expected to see more people from his and my worlds. But it turned out to be a book launch for Katherine Birbalsingh’s To Miss With Love. So, somehow related to this, the room was 80% full of unfamiliar people in sharp suits and Jaeger dresses. We were invited to choose a sticker to denote our stance on education: radical, trad or MOR. I couldn’t choose anything but radical (although when Toby Young chose the same sticker I was almost as confused as when Tony Blair took us to Iraq).
I’m blogging about this event because I was so disturbed by the offensive behaviour of some of the people in the audience, heckling at Donald, Dawn and Tristram, and braying ‘hear hear’ at Toby, Katherine and Sir Ralph. One woman next to me was so disturbed by Donald Clark’s citing of research that she was harrumphing with rage and called him ‘a Commie’. When he gave evidence that selection by ability was the primary reason for some schools’ success in league tables, someone called ‘bring back secondary moderns then’ (cancelling out her own point, as secondary moderns were the corrolary to grammar schools.) Peter Whittle from the New Culture Forum insulted the impressive teacher Dawn Hallybone by saying she was complacent and represented all that was wrong with schools today, garnering loud applause. Katherine Birbalsingh became more hysterical as she spoke, about her drive to speak the truth, suggesting a tyranny of oppressive left-wing dogma that had made it impossible for her to speak before. She kept saying ‘nobody believes me’, and begged us to believe her that nobody had believed her, that schools are really out of control. (Actually I think we do believe her that behaviour can be very poor but she can’t see that the solution is to treat the root causes of inequality and neglect. She cannot think outside the system she is in, where large classes and exam regimes force teachers to treat the symptoms of neglect with remedial discipline.) This hysterical ‘truth-speaking’ seems to be part of an upswell, since the end of the Labour regime, in unreasoned bigotry couched in expressions of relief that the thought police are at last in abeyance. (For example, Toby Young was outrageous yesterday in his condemnation of LBGT events at Stoke Newington school.)
I’m trying to understand the motivations of these followers of Michael Gove (Goveans) who seek to create such a polarisation of views about education that they can be so aggressive in driving apart the debate. (This article gives some understanding of the Neoconservative principles that drive Gove.) What is it that they want to achieve by their noisy rudeness? The education system in England has been so thoroughly geared towards the mode of ‘sit them down and test them in academic subjects’ there is very little more that can be done. The great majority of educators do believe in and apply discipline (though in different ways) and they do want to see their students achieve academically. Rather than gently push on with this trajectory, the Goveans are forcing extreme changes. For example, they aim to mould state schools into the image of private schools and to blur the distinction between the two. (Private schools may get state funding to be Free Schools and Academies will become state-funded private schools.) Alongside these extreme changes, there is also a surprising perversity against the notion that education is a preparation for work, which has previously seen industrialists’ demands for skills drive the curriculum. For example, Toby Young said that he doesn’t want students at his Free School to be employable, rather he wants them to be grounded in a core of cultural knowledge (including compulsory Latin). The idea here, I think, is that people become more employable (in what is supposed to be a ‘knowledge economy’) if you model them on suave Etonians who don’t consciously improve their skills through anything as vulgar as training.
This idea is weak enough as it is but made very shaky indeed when seen in the light of globalisation and the global triple crunch. Peter Wilby writes persuasively here about the threat to our confidence in the ‘knowledge economy’. Only 10-15% of people will be in any kind of elite position in the emerging global industrial system, the rest will perform ‘routine functions for routine wages’ and the West will not be exempt. So, an education system that drives all our nation’s students towards a classical elite education (whilst tripling HE tuition fees and cutting places, while other countries invest in HE), in the hope that they will all become the world’s masters, is bound to fail. The crunchiest part of the triple crunch is the ecological crisis which, when you look at it, makes Peter Wilby’s vision of everyone in mundane jobs seem positively utopian. Our young people won’t just need the kind of ‘scientific management’ skills promoted in the BTECs that were much maligned in the debate, they will need survival skills. Toby Young was horrified that young people might pursue college studies in food hospitality and catering. But, in 10 years he might be horrified to find that his own children don’t have the essential skills to grow and cook food and to provide hospitality for others. Ironically, despite the Goveans’ promotion of knowledge, they appear not to know enough about history, education, young people’s needs and the context in which ‘a learning society’ is becoming essential. I can’t work out what they want to achieve because it isn’t real, so therefore it isn’t knowable.
(A little update: Here’s a personal account of Birbalsingh’s trajectory to the public eye by Aladin. He explains why he didn’t heed her plea to attend the book launch. I was intrigued that she’d clearly asked people to come and cheer her on, which may explain the heckling behaviour at the event. Aladin is a magician, artist and management consultant, by the way, not using a psuedonym as the comments suggest.)